I think there’s great value in taking time at the end of each year to look back and relishing in those things and experiences that ignited your passion and emotion. Taking inventory of the previous 365 days is a very healthy practice, and when it comes to one of my passions - movies - it’s been quite the year.
I was especially struck by how writers and directors repeatedly found ways to breathe new life into genre films in 2018. From superhero movies to period pieces to science fiction to heist films, 2018 saw some incredible films released. Cinephiles were also blessed by having so many talented artists release new films this year. It was a fantastic year for movies, and I was captivated from the beginning of the year to the end.
Below, you will find my 10 favorite films that were released in 2018, with a few honorable mentions. But before we get into the list, I must give a few caveats.
One, I live in northern Indiana. We often don't get the Oscar-buzzy movies until January. There are some major films that I have not seen yet. A few of them I expect to make their way onto this list, but I don't think it's fair to put a film on the list that I have not actually seen yet. I also feel that I must put out my year-end list before the year actually ends. So, below are my favorites of the movies that I have seen in 2018, but there's a good chance that I will be updating it throughout January. If I add any new films, I will acknowledge which films were added and removed from the list you see here.
Two, I don't want this particular post to get too bogged down by review material. For any of the films on this list that I have already reviewed, I'll provide a link to the longer review in case you'd like to read my full thoughts on the film. Some of these reviews were posted here on my site, and others were posted for film outlets to which I contribute. I highly encourage you to check out both Filmotomy and InSession Film, as each site has many great writers who do a fantastic job of covering the year in movies. For this post, I'll just give a short blurb for each finalist containing the reasons why I enjoyed that particular film.
Three, let me be clear - these are my personal favorites. If you don't see a film on here that you loved, don't take that as me slighting any film. I thought this was a year full of incredible filmmaking from a wide array of artists. These are the 10 films that I saw this year that resonated with me the most, but that doesn't mean they are the only films that struck a chord with me.
With that, let's get into the list!*
My Top 10 of 2018
10. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
An anthology film about the Wild West is just about the perfect concept for the Coen Brothers’ unique abilities for writing characters. Character after character comes across the screen in this collection of six tall tales. Zoe Kazan gives a fantastic supporting performance, and the cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel is gorgeous. As is usually the case with the Coens, the script is incredible. It may not be quite as good as some of their previous work, but that is a tough assignment for a film. On its own merits, this is a fantastic movie and is readily available for streaming on Netflix.
9. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Some of the dialogue in this film seemed like it was pulled directly from my subconscious. That’s not to say that I’ve ever forged letters by famed literary figures, but it does hint at the ways that this film goes deeper than just the incredible true story of Lee Israel. Melissa McCarthy is incredible as Israel. This is the best performance I’ve ever seen from her. Richard E. Grant also gives a fine supporting performance. As a writer, I resonated with a lot of the themes here, and I was pleasantly surprised by the film’s poignancy.
Speaking of poignant, Spike Lee has done it once again. He uses some of his familiar stylystic flair here, but it is his ability to insightfully draw parallels between the past and the present that make the most profound effect. John David Washington and Adam Driver are both fantastic as well. A story about a black man infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan seems tailor made for Spike Lee’s artistic vision, and he absolutely knocks it out of the park here.
7. First Reformed
Paul Schrader operates at another level here. He is able to do so because Ethan Hawke is operating on his own astronomical level. Hawke gives the best lead actor performance of the year, and Schrader brings his A-game with both the script and the direction for this film. I’m really looking forward to a re-watch, as there was simply too much to take in the first time I saw it. But there is no denying that this is a powerful film that wrestles with important topics surrounding faith, doubt and the ways we interact with nature.
6. Private Life
From its pristine script to the fantastic acting performances, Private Life is one of the year’s best films even if it doesn’t hold the title of best film released by Netflix (more on that later). I think Kathryn Hahn gives the year’s best lead actress performance, and I previously wrote about why she deserves Oscar consideration. Tamara Jenkins pens one of the year’s best scripts, and the film does a fantastic job of unpacking an under-discussed story - that of a couple going through infertility struggles. If you haven’t seen this film, go stream it on Netflix NOW.
5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse**
This is one of the most visually-striking films I’ve seen in a long time, probably since Blade Runner: 2049. It breathes new life into the superhero genre, and it has so much fun along the way. Not only do I think this was the best superhero film of 2018, but I think it is a contender for best of all-time. Its message of believing in your abilities and being willing to take a leap of faith is so powerful, and it vaults the film out of comparision with only its superhero counterparts into a conversation for best film of the year in any genre.
I’ll never forget how I felt leaving the theater after seeing this film the first time. I was weightless. I floated out the doors. I was so overcome by what I had just experienced, and I wasn’t really sure what had even happened. In fact, I went back that very same day and watched the film again in that same theater. This kicked off a year full of genre pictures that elevate their material. Here, director Alex Garland finds ways to use the science fiction genre to unpack themes of depression and the ways we attack ourselves. The closing scenes of this film create one of the most memorable film experiences I’ve ever had. From the music to the visuals, this is a film of incredible quality.
Steve McQueen is in complete control of his visual talents here. That he chooses to use them on a genre picture is quite interesting, indeed. And yet, no Steve McQueen movie is ever going to fit perfectly into a genre box. This may be a heist film, but it is so much more than that. It unpacks socioeconomic differences in Chicago and the ways that politics suppress real change. It deals with themes of racism and sexism, and it has a fantastic ensemble cast. Specifically, Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Daniel Kaluuya all give incredible performances.
2. Cold War
Pawel Pawlikowski’s film about a couple in postwar Europe is completely transfixing. That is surely due in part to the wonderful lead performances from Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot as Zula and Wiktor. But Pawlikowski’s visual skill imbues the film with a striking flair. Through hardships and across borders, the love between Zula and Wiktor continues. It leads up to the film’s absolutely perfect ending. It’s one of the best endings to a film in recent memory. It gave me chills, and it very nearly earned the top spot on my list. Foreign films had quite the year in 2018, and it was another foreign film that slightly outdid this one…
This film is beautiful. It is searing. It is visually stunning and technically masterful. The writing moves your emotions, as does the acting. It is a wonder of a creation. I think it is a career masterwork for Alfonso Cuaron, who has already had his share of impressive films. It showcases a slice of life from 1970s Mexico City in striking detail, made all the more poignant by the wonderful lead performance from Yalitza Aparicio. This film fires on all cylinders, from the visual to the written storytelling. Yes, it is a Netflix film. But if Netflix proved anything in 2018, it was that they are committed to making quality cinema available to the masses. This is the pinnacle of that achievement, and I think it was the best film released in 2018.
*On January 15, 2019, Eighth Grade was added at #15 which pushed Vice off of the list.
**On January 18, 2019, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was added at #4 which pushed First Man to #11 and knocked Eighth Grade off the list completely.
***On February 15, 2019, Cold War was added at #2, which moved The Favourite to #11 and knocked Black Panther off the list comletely.
Thanks for reading! If you’re looking for even more movie content, check out my extended list of my 25 favorite films of 2018 over at Letterboxd.